The Cost of Becoming a Pastor

students-loans2I absolutely love being a pastor. There isn’t a single thing I would change about what I do—not even the meetings (which often include one of the prayer offices and theologically-driven conversation). It is a joy to be in the pulpit, to comfort terrified consciences, to baptize sinners, and to teach God’s Word to His people. My father drives a truck for a living, and I have in a sense followed in his footsteps. I’m just the delivery guy. I have the privilege of delivering the most precious gift the world has ever known, day in and day out: the Gospel.

My purpose in writing about the expenses involved in becoming a pastor is not to discourage men from pursuing ordination. However, it is a matter of faithful stewardship to consider the financial realities of life in 21st century America and the fiscal health of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and its congregations.

The burden of debt many men incur in the process of becoming a pastor can be suffocating. The educational indebtedness of pastors in the LCMS is just as problematic as the number of inactive (yet eligible) candidates on the roster (what was formerly called CRM), our current lack of koinonia, or anything else. There are faithful pastors who have had to find work in other fields because they couldn’t pay off their debts and provide for their families on a pastor’s salary.

Debt is a serious concern for many pastors, and it is important for prospective (and even current) seminary students to consider whether or not they can afford their education, and—especially in the case of men with a wife and children—to be realistic about the fiscal challenges they will almost certainly face in providing for their families.

Pastor Matt Richard has posted some excellent research on the cost of education and the reality of pastor salaries on PM Notes. Conservatively, the total cost of education (not necessarily the amount borrowed) for a man who is married and has children to earn a bachelor’s degree at a state school and a Master of Divinity at Concordia Theological Seminary is around $158,104.[1]

Concordia Theological Seminary has recently published a study called Improving the Economic Well-Being of Future Servants of Jesus Christ. Of those polled, 44% of recent graduates from CTS left the seminary with up to $60,000 in educational debt, and 40% left with debt greater than $60,000 (over 10% had over $100K).

The study also reported that the average starting salary for graduates in 2013 was $40,000. After rendering to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, paying the bills, and providing for the needs of your family, that doesn’t leave very much to pay off any debts incurred during the seven years of education typically required for a Master of Divinity and its prerequisites.

Prior to learning of the CTS study, we began an informal poll of pastoral educational indebtedness here at The Brothers of John the Steadfast. Some of the discussion that followed that survey was helpful, particularly the comments by Pr. Martin Noland. You can read those comments and find a link to that survey here.

While our survey is much less comprehensive, of the 13 that have responded (as of May 10th), the average educational indebtedness was just shy of $50K, which is in the ballpark of what CTS reported. Our figure is almost certainly low; of the 13 who responded to our survey, 31% reported no educational debt. Contrast that to the 16% who responded to the CTS survey who said they left the seminary with no educational debt. Of those who reported educational debt on our survey, the figures ranged from $30K to $170K.

There’s also the question of whether or not a pastor can reasonably expect to serve in full-time ministry throughout his lifetime or whether he will be required to seek additional (or perhaps even alternative) employment. The CTS survey indicated that most graduates are called to small congregations in rural settings (average weekly attendance less than 100). It would also be interesting to know the average age of the members of those congregations and how fiscally stable they are. According to recent research, if the current rate of decline in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod continues, we can expect to go from 6,000 congregations down to 1,000 congregations in the next 30 years.

The days may be coming when most pastors will be making tents for a living and preaching the Gospel free of charge. Problem is, theology isn’t the most marketable skill in the world and tent-making doesn’t pay all that well these days. Unless a pastor has a background in some field unrelated to theology, it can be very difficult to find work that will pay the bills outside of the pulpit.

Does this mean that faithful, yet struggling congregations need to change? Absolutely not. The Church is to do what She’s been given to do and leave the results in God’s hands (1 Corinthians 3:6). Sometimes He gives numerical growth, sometimes He doesn’t. Such is the theology of the cross. But young men ought to be prepared for the realities of life after seminary and go into the future with their eyes open.

Nor should we be willing to settle for anything less than a robust theological education for our clergy. I agree fully with Pr. Noland’s observation:

“…the synod should offer Lutheran-perspective liberal arts higher education to college-age students. We have always done that, and it is in agreement with the educational goals of Luther, Melanchthon, and Walther. But we also need, as a critical function for the synod, the training of synodical church-workers, and in a way that does not burden them financially, since most of them will never have adequate compensation to pay off large amounts of debt.”[2]

The quickest way to kill congregations is to dumb down the education of pastors. Not only will the size of congregations continue to decline, so will the quality of preaching, catechesis, and pastoral care. Maybe the days are coming when seminary professors will also be making tents for a living and preparing men for pastoral ministry free of charge.

Concordia Theological Seminary is to be commended for taking a first step to improving the economic well-being of future servants of Jesus Christ. However, I would urge both seminaries and the Synod not to forget the plight of the economic well-being of current servants of Jesus Christ. Our responsibility toward one another doesn’t end with graduation, does it? (The frequent requests graduates receive to serve as donors would suggest not.) We certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that we are concerned with the fiscal health of our men only while they are paying tuition dollars.

[1] Having a bachelor’s degree or equivalent is a prerequisite for seminary admission. According to College Board, the average (in-state) tuition per year at a public university is $9,139 ($36,556 for four years). The cost of attendance and childcare at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne is currently estimated at $40,516 per year (after the need-based 55% tuition grant). For the three years of seminary, that’s $121,548. When you add in undergraduate studies, that a total expense of $158,104, minus any additional grants or scholarships.

[2] https://steadfastlutherans.org/2015/05/pastoral-educational-debt-survey/comment-page-1/#comment-1087672

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